On the eve of Thanksgiving, an elaborate Manhattan mansion has been converted not once, but twice. By day, the space functions as the Margo Feiden Galleries, where works from famed cartoonist Al Hirschfeld’s pen and ink drawings line the walls of the eclectic east village brownstone. Tonight, the space has been repurposed to accommodate a crowd of artists, personalities, and socialites to celebrate… well, nothing.
Pop-up parties like this are all too common in a city where limited venue space and archaic laws are designed to keep its citizens from partying. Despite its drawbacks, New York has remained a pivotal centerpiece in American nightlife culture for decades. At the focal point of New York’s underground nightlife lie the club kids: a group of artists, freaks, visionaries, and personalities that have continuously defined what it really means to be the life of the party. In attendance at the aforementioned mansion event is Suzie Hart, an NYU professor by day and a locally famed club kid by night who, along with some companions, has been hired to be seen at the event. Usually at her side is Alec Nox, a daytime nursing student with high fashion running through their veins.
What is a club kid, exactly? “It’s the people who can walk through the line,” Hart says, referring to those who have the style and allure to walk straight into the hottest parties in the city without question — you can’t just wear the look, you have to have the attitude. The culture embodies freedom in that it places value on originality and authenticity while challenging sexuality and identity. The weirder, more authentic you are, the better — as long as you demonstrate the confidence to match your look. In so many ways, the club kid experience is, on the surface, all about embodying your artwork. “The term has gone through a lot of changes in its time,” Hart adds, noting that the association with infamous founding characters such as Michael Alig and James St. James has brought the scene into the mainstream while simultaneously tainting its image.
The early ’90s brought the club kids national recognition thanks to their beyond memorable parties and eclectic fashions that caught the attention of media sources like Joan Rivers and Geraldo. But when Alig brutally murdered his then drug dealer and roommate Angel Melendez in 1996, the scene became synonymous with the event. “Association with Alig is social suicide,” Hart said as I recalled an event Alig recently attempted to throw in a Brooklyn dive bar. The bar has since closed, prompting Alec Nox to declare the venue “Alig’s second murder.” However, the original club kids of New York still remain as notorious as ever. “[In] 2011 we did a Party Monster event with Superstar DJ Keoki, James St. James, Scotto, Jen Lasher, and Lacey Youngblood. Complete with a fashionably late Keoki to his DJ set,” said Alex English, a former booking agent for the late Webster Hall. “The club scene to me has always been an amalgamation of cultures. The more of a juxtaposition, the better — it shocks people into being more socially open,” English added.
Of the hosting job, Hart attributes times of economic instability to the demand for party hosts such as herself. “No one is going to want to pay to see that some guy in Armani is sitting with a methuselah of Veuve Cliquot — they might want to go see the shows that those people go to, but no one pays just to see those people,” she said. A good party host is much more than just someone who captivates the eye while sitting atop a pedestal, which is made obvious as Hart effortlessly entertains every patron that approaches her as if they were her personal guest to the event. To become a great host, you have to captivate the audience and attract crowds in the same way a great stage performer would. “[I look for] personalities that stand out. Whether it be a club kid host or a hipster host, the dynamics are the same,” English said. “I tend to people-watch quite a bit, especially at nightlife events. There are certain individuals that have this gravitas that pull people into their world. I tend to watch these people with the idea of [seeing them as a] host or DJ in the back of my head,” he said.
The music industry’s role in the club kid scene is often overlooked as the focus at these events is often on the people more than the artists. At Susanne Bartsch’s On Top! series at Le Bain, for example, you’ll rarely see a high-profile DJ behind the decks despite the fact that Bartsch’s social status dates back to the Warhol-era of nightlife. One of the few venues that combined the club kid scene with the mainstream electronic music industry was Webster Hall in its later years. “Gotham at Webster Hall was Cirque Du Soleil-meets-Limelight Disco 2000 which was conceptualized by Shane Savant and Kenny Schachter [who also booked the hosts]. Kayvon Zand was brought in to give the party that aura of sin,” English said. “He brought a lot of the old and new club kids.”
Webster Hall excelled in curating multiple events at once, making sure the parties would seamlessly blend together as if each room was an extension of the other. For example, Gotham was often paired with events like Mija’s ‘FK A Genre Tour’ in 2016, which hit Webster Hall on October 22nd of that year and combined the tour with the indulgent club kid side of New York’s nightlife.
While the professional side of club kid culture may seem like a vapid, money-making tool for the nightlife industry, the club kid social circle offers a haven for LGBTQ+ identifying people to find themselves in a community that doesn’t hinder the importance of self-expression. “Even people who aren’t queer in sexuality but are weirdos in their own way, all people who go through traumas [of finding their identity] need a safe place… nightlife offers that,” Hart said. In contrast to other nightlife industries, the club kid scene specifically offers a place for people to experiment with their gender identity in a safe environment. “This is really more of an expression of some inner truth about who we are rather than a costume,” Nox said. “For some of us, especially trans people in the scene, we can’t take this off and be ‘respectable’ members of society; this is our time to really say ‘fuck it all’ and be free,” they add. Nightlife provides an escape for so many people, and in a town as intense as New York, it comes as no surprise that the nightlife would only match its raw energy. “I think the sense of community helps everyone find a second family,” English said. “I guess you can say in some way, we are all a family of lovely misfits.”
Although drag is often overlapped into many of the parties where club kids can be seen (personalities such as Amanda Lepore are often front and center at events like On Top), the two have some notable differences. “Both of us play with gender, although drag queens and kings usually stick to a binary gender while club kids tend to be more androgynous, and some don’t play with it much at all,” Nox said. The definitive crux, though, is that not everyone who dresses in elaborate fashion wants to perform onstage. “Hosting parties is a type of performance, but it’s not a stage performance,” Hart said. “There are the types of people who want to do drag and then there are the types of people who want to dress [up] and host a table. Club kids tend to be more shy,” she added.
It should come to no surprise that such a fabulous, provocative world would be the fashion and art industries’ source of inspiration. “Fashion designers come to see our ideas,” Hart said. “What we’re doing now [is what] you’ll see on the runways in two to three years,” she added. Beyond that, the industry has influenced pop culture in quite a few places. Many will recognize Katy Perry’s Saturday Night Live performance wherein the pop star can be seen dancing alongside a troupe of queens — even Lady Gaga owes her come-up persona largely to the nightlife industry she was surrounded by in the start of her career.
While forward thinking is at the helm of club kid attire, good art is often an interpretation of a previous form. “I’ll pull inspiration from time periods and fashion or cultural movements,” Nox said. “I also pull ideas from seeing those around me doing things by turning them into my own,” they added. Not everyone is welcoming to this philosophy as plagiarism is a sensitive topic within any niche of the art world. “I’ve definitely been guilty of having that knee-jerk reaction that someone is [copying your ideas],” Hart said, adding that “One time I made a head piece with origami and then a week later someone else had a bigger head piece with origami and on the inside [I was upset], but then I [realized] that the person looked amazing and even if they did get it from me, I should be flattered that she loved it so much she took it, turned it up a notch and made it better.”
What the club kids do seem to collectively value is DIY looks and pieces that express fresh ideas. “I’ve learned that I have to change my look once a year or people get bored,” Hart said. A good look will have a story or purpose behind it while the performance is in animating the look. “Some really vapid model who I really cared about a lot said something to me once: ‘beauty is power’ and I thought No, no it’s not at all, beauty makes you an object for people who have money and power,” Hart said, reflecting on the inspiration for a period in which she dressed as a doll. “So I started dressing like a doll to show that we’re all just dolled up for these people who are going to come in and spend money to look at [us].”
In a city where gentrification incites rapid change, the soul of New York continues to thrive in its underground nightlife culture. You just have to stand out enough to get in. Not unlike any other nightlife industry, it faces its own challenges of staying true to its roots in a hyper-capitalist society. “The scene has become more mainstream,” English said. “Electronic music’s underground beginnings are ubiquitous in today’s culture, fashion, and lifestyle. While some of it is appropriated by big business, its essence remains — at least I’d like to think so. It’s up to today’s youth to remix what is today to deliver us tomorrow.”
If you’re interested in checking out the scene, Alex English is playing a DJ set this Saturday, June 9th at Sony Hall in New York City. Details here.